Sometimes when you are watching a movie in the dark you reach for your notebook and pen to scribble down a thought about what you are experiencing. It’s often hard to read in the cold light of day and you might wonder quite why you do this? Why would anyone in fact, write about the art they are witnessing? What is this need to respond and to record not only what the work is but how your feel about it?
In your notebook today you find the barely recognisable words “A Howl against modernity” and recall that they were put there during a screening at the South London Gallery of ‘The Hole‘ (1998) by Tsai Ming-Liang the “Malaysian-born Taiwanese art house director.”
Fortunately you can recall what “A Howl against modernity” means, why it is there in your notebook, and can expand upon that point and use it as an introductory device. But you could also start by simply saying how much you loved this film.
“Love” is an overused term these days regarding almost any kind of gratifying experience – a TV series, an ice cream, a pair of Jeans, David Bowie etc.- but there is something not only enjoyable but truly endearing to you about this film: its characters, its simple but strange tale, and the devices the director uses to engage you.
It is set within the restrictive, almost Beckettian limits of two adjoining modern apartments, in a generic, commonplace but really quite inhuman, sprawling and labyrinthine concrete tower block. It could be one or other of Asia’s megacities but the bad news radio broadcasts that introduce the film lead you to believe you are in Taipei, Taiwan – though you never see the city and never escape an immediate vicinity.
The other factor which is consistent and thereby determines the environment, the atmosphere and the content of the story, is relentless pouring rain, the rainy season, which seems to constantly threaten and curse the lives of the city’s inhabitants, represented by just two isolated characters (who have no names).
The narrative is simple. A plumber visits a flat inhabited by the male character and leaves behind an unresolved investigation, which disrupts the concrete floor and leaves a small hole leading through in to the apartment below, inhabited by the female character. What follows is a strange but simple story of antagonism, desire, frustration and loving resolution.
What distinguishes the film however is, first, the truly miserable experience of these existentially isolated humans, living in a near animal state, in leaking, damp rooms (the girl’s is by far the worst of the two) where wallpaper peels from walls, everything gets soaked and where you even need to place a bowl over your head when using the toilet. Both seem to live on Ramen and canned fish, or some even cheaper form of Pot Noodle.
Their proximity to the animal world is signalled by the man’s relationship with a cat who eats in a similar fashion to the humans, and by the phenomenon of a Taiwanese virus which the radio warns may begin with flu-like symptoms before turning the victim basically into a human cockroach. Inhumanity persists as the woman effusively sprays her apartment with insecticides that disperse up through the hole into the man’s apartment. In return, he spies on her a little and also starts to perversely probe and investigate the hole with his body, sometimes dangling a limb through it when she is not looking.
Eventually however, the two are reconciled in a moving and gracious finale when the woman, having experienced frightening symptoms of the cockroach virus is lifted up and out of her misery by the man’s salient arm. This is perhaps the only moment in the entire film when ANYTHING ascends and reminds you that the whole film has otherwise been about descent, falling and failing.
The most peculiar, shocking and joyful aspect of the film, to which you have not yet alluded, is the inclusion by the director of regular pop-video-like song-and-dance fantasy routines wherein the hero and heroine are magically transformed in their mood and appearance, in their dress and their movements, to mime and mimic (Karaoke-style) Taiwanese hit songs from the late 50s and early 60s – as originally performed by one Grace Chang – apparently an icon of this rapidly Americanising period in Taiwanese history, but for you a new and welcome discovery.
This device makes you think of Wong Kar Wai’s repeated use of evocative South American music in many of his postmodern-romantic Asian episodes, or even of Dennis Potter’s ‘Pennies From Heaven‘ and ‘Singing Detective‘ in which popular songs are allowed to interrupt, enhance and inform real life (or rather, theatrical realism).
The use of song-and-dance in ‘The Hole‘ however seems even more unexpected and more gratuitous than in those other examples, and yet its apparent meaninglessness – serving only to help us live through, with the characters, an otherwise unbearable existence – makes it all the more joyful.
And surely it is true that popular music does play this part in all modern lives. Available for free and almost anywhere, on the cheapest of radio receivers, sweet and simple, silly and playful, pop and love songs have been redeeming the grim workplace and the drudgery of modern home life internationally since at least the 1920s.
Before the loving climax arises there are moments of total despair. We see the woman collapse in tears on a bed surrounded, like an island, by water-soaked vinyl floor covering. We also see the man upstairs contorted by curiosity, frustration and desire, hammering away at his concrete floor and also breaking down in tears.
It was at this point that you made that note in your notebook in the dark – “A Howl against modernity” – because it all suddenly seemed to you to be an indictment of internationalist concrete architecture, of crowded modern cities, of alienated modern relationships, of isolated economic/capitalist/consumerist units at the root of all this bleak modern misery and inhumanity.
You begin to suspect that, in a more traditional society there may well be other problems that modernity resolves but still wonder if they would be worse than these problems. Perhaps even the rain and the rainy season may have been better dealt with according to the wisdom of the ages and traditional architecture, rather than the quick fix of modernist estates and towers.
As the tearful man’s hammer smashes away at his own concrete floor the floor itself seems increasingly ludicrous, its destruction increasingly important, urgent and hopeful, and eventually the subjective ‘irrational’ and ‘ancient’ (non-modern) logic of human love conquers all this modern idiocy, in the redemptive gesture of the finale, but also, repeatedly, in those crazy, comic and charming inserts that seem to insist on survival of the human spirit (the wink of an eye, the shake of a tush, the infectious rhythm of Samba, a lipstick smile blowing a kiss or voicing a corny rhyme), survival against all odds and against all the insults and limitations within which modernity incarcerates us.
Link to archive of works by Grace Chang – including some of the pop-video like renditions from ‘The Hole’)